Leistikow: A true team win for Hawkeye women, who are closing in on history
INDIANAPOLIS — You could see the frustration building inside Kathleen Doyle. Shut out for the first 36½ minutes of Iowa’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal Friday night, the Hawkeyes’ top-scoring guard couldn’t get a thing to drop through the basket.
After one failed sequence along the baseline, she slammed the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with both hands.
So, when she finally canned a jumper with 3:22 to play — her first make on her eighth attempt, as the shot clock was down to a few seconds — the emotions poured out of her. She jumped in the air, pumped her fist and screamed.
The exuberance might as well have doubled as a giant sigh of relief.
With a flurry of late clutch shots from Doyle, point guard Tania Davis and — of course — Megan Gustafson, the second-seeded Hawkeyes survived Indiana, 70-61, to reach the conference semifinals for the first time in four years.
Doyle blocked two shots and hit another 3-pointer after her big-time bucket gave Iowa a 58-54 lead.
“It’s always frustrating when shots aren’t falling,” said Doyle, who finished with a season-low five points but dished out six assists and drew an important charging foul down the stretch. “But my teammates did an amazing job of building me up.”
Despite popular belief, this team isn’t all about Gustafson — the Big Ten player of the year who had yet another otherworldly stat line: 30 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots.
Friday showed what the women on this team already know: This is a special group, a special team.
Junior guard Makenzie Meyer drained four big 3-pointers, each seemingly at a clutch time.
Davis, a courageous senior who has overcome two ACL tears, hit one of the biggest shots of her career, a cool-as-a-cucumber 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4:11 left after Indiana had moved in front, 54-53.
Hannah Stewart, a senior playing the best basketball of her life, pulled down 13 rebounds to go with nine points to provide much-needed interior production as defenders continue to gang up on Gustafson.
“What’s great about our team is I’m not the only one creating and doing stuff. My teammates are,” Gustafson said. “That’s what makes us so unstoppable right now.”
Before the game, they wore Nike-issued T-shirts with the word “FAMILY” printed across the chest.
“Our shirts say it all. Family. These girls are like my sisters,” said Doyle, a junior. “We’re best friends on and off the court. We know each other’s quirks and how each other plays. It makes it really easy to build each other up and have a lot of energy.”
That is a special word for a team that hopes to make some Iowa history this week … and in coming weeks.
The Hawkeye women haven’t won a conference tournament since 2001. Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten title in any women's sport since field hockey in 2008. That’s an incredible stat. One that this group is two wins away from changing.
It'll be Iowa vs. Rutgers in Saturday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal.
Back home, Iowa basketball fans have gotten a little surly about the ongoing slide of the men’s team.
But over here in Indianapolis, the Hawkeye women keep giving everyone associated with black and gold plenty of reasons to smile.
If you haven’t tuned in yet, now’s the time.
Iowa is 24-6 and doing special things, behind a once-in-a-lifetime player in Gustafson.
She was harassed all night, but still managed to assemble her 83rd career double-double. This was the nation’s leading scorer’s 13th straight game with at least 25 points.
“This run right here in the postseason, it’s everything to me right now and my career,” said Gustafson, now up to 2,635 career points. “I know Hannah and Tania can say the same thing.”
The Hawkeyes have a ton to play for this week. They’re trying to hang onto the No. 2 seed that the NCAA is forecasting they’ll get. And of course, they’re trying to bring a Big Ten championship to Iowa City.
Oddly, none of the players said they were worried when Indiana — a 20-win team that rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Iowa on Feb. 21 — moved in front in the final minutes.
“We were right where we wanted to be,” Doyle dead-panned.
Win or lose Saturday or Sunday, the Hawkeyes will host NCAA Tournament games in a few weeks at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
They’re playing hard together. And enjoying every minute. They don't want it to end.
“We just love each other," Davis said. "Whenever we’re down, we can always count on the other 12 or 13 of us to pick each other up."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.